Who … should you be talking about after the NASCAR Playoffs Race in Las Vegas?
Denny Hamlin once again showed Sunday night (Sept. 26) why he was a championship contender one year ago.
For only the second time this season, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver earned a NASCAR Cup Series win. It was a fairly straightforward victory this time as the 40-year-old veteran led 137 of 267 laps during the evening, including the final 39.
Hamlin led for the majority of the final stage after a poor strategy call by the leading Hendrick Motorsports cars put them in the back of the lead lap at the end of stage two. Hamlin won the second stage and felt the breath of the closing Chevrolet of Chase Elliott on his neck in the final moments of the event. Once again, Hamlin had to hold off a charging HMS driver in the closing laps to go to victory lane.
This time, however, the triumph came when the team really needed one. Not only is that the Virginian’s first win in Sin City, but it gives the Toyota driver a guaranteed spot in the Round of 8. That means a clear head going into what will be a chaotic next two weekends for NASCAR Cup Series playoff drivers.
And don’t forget: There are four drivers that are no longer in the NASCAR playoffs this week, yet one of them raced like that didn’t matter.
Tyler Reddick finished sixth tonight and even led five laps before it was all said and done. While the stats for Sunday night may tell the story of yet another top 10 for the Richard Childress Racing driver, it’s also a highlight of another race that could’ve been so much more.
In a bittersweet fashion, Reddick stalked the No. 11 of Hamlin in the early laps of the final stage. It was for a win that would’ve come only one week after being eliminated from the playoffs, losing out by just two points after Bristol Motor Speedway.
Before the final green flag pit cycle, Reddick was as close as 0.1 seconds behind the leader. Hamlin pitted before Reddick, however, which allowed him to build a gap with fresher tires. The No. 8 shuffled back to sixth before taking the checkered in a race that could’ve given Reddick his first career Cup win.
What … is the buzz about?
There are still two whole races left in the Round of 12, but it’s already time to start worrying if your last name isn’t Hamlin.
That’s especially the case if you’re outside the top eight in the Cup standings.
Christopher Bell finds himself a whopping 25 points behind the cutoff line after a difficult night at Las Vegas. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver finished 24th after sustaining damage early on in a pit road incident with Kurt Busch. That may not seem insurmountable, especially with two wild card races next in Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL.
But in a playoff format that requires drivers to be consistent week-in and week-out, Bell still finds himself with a lot of ground to make up. A Talladega wreck next weekend would all but end his title hopes.
What about the other three drivers sweating outside the cutline?
Despite their prowess with the 550-horsepower rules package so far in 2021, two Hendrick Motorsports teams opened yet another playoff round with ground to cover to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Kyle Larson won stage one, led 95 laps and finished 10th on Sunday with 57 points between him and ninth place in the standings. The aforementioned Elliott finished second and has a 22-point cushion between him and elimination.
However, teammates William Byron and Alex Bowman had another disappointing result, as they finished 18th and 22nd, respectively. Byron, who had taken the lead at one point after starting at the rear of the field, suffered a flat tire in the closing laps of the race. Yet with the speed the No. 24 showed Sunday night, he can easily come back as he sits ninth with only a four-point deficit to cover over eighth-place Brad Keselowski.
Bowman, by comparison, has 13 points to make up. These may not seem like large numbers, but keep in mind, Keselowski has only one win in 2021, and that victory came at next week’s venue of Talladega.
That fourth sweating driver is the No. 4 of Kevin Harvick.
It was a quiet night for Harvick. He placed eighth in both stages and finished ninth overall. For Harvick, Sunday night was not a story of hardship nor success, but of mediocrity. After a humdrum year of top 10s with no victories, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver finds himself facing elimination despite having a decent night. He sits seven points outside of the top eight and is still feuding with fellow playoff driver Chase Elliott after their incident at Bristol Motor Speedway last week.
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Pole sitter and Bristol Night Race winner Larson finished 10th after a pit strategy gone wrong put him near the end of the lead-lap field. The Californian battled back, placing himself back inside the top 10 before it was over, but it was a missed opportunity for the winner at this track back in March.
Last year’s playoff Las Vegas winner Kurt Busch had another decent night in what will be his last year with the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing organization. The Las Vegas native finished eighth in his first race since being eliminated from the playoffs last week.
When … was the moment of truth?
It was early. Early in stage two kind of early.
After a violent crash that sent Rick Ware Racing driver Joey Gase behind the wall and to the infield care center on lap 93, many of the lead lap drivers pitted.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 27, 2021
Fresh tires proved to be important in some parts of the evening but, in this particular case, not as important as fuel.
JGR drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Hamlin pitted while the leading HMS drivers stayed out. For the latter, it was a risk that proved costly.
Before the end of the stage, the leading HMS horses of Larson and Elliott knew they had to pit for gas. However, for the Toyotas of Hamlin and Truex, they were on cruise control near the front.
Only a caution could help the strategy of the Hendrick Bowties, a risky move at an intermediate known for long green flag runs. Alas, aside from Gase’s crash, the two stage cautions and an early competition yellow, it stayed green. The two JGR cars won stage two and kept the lead throughout the final stage, utilizing track position they gained to their advantage once HMS cars had to make an extra stop.
Elliott snuck back on the lead lap before the end of stage two, fighting back to contend with Hamlin for the win, but it wasn’t enough to keep the No. 11 team from victory lane for the second time this year. And the other three HMS cars? They could never get back to the front after running 1-2-3-4 earlier in the race.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
One word: Talladega.
It’s a name that makes even the wealthiest of car owners shudder.
The superspeedways of Talladega and Daytona International Speedway have proven to be the wildest of wild card races in previous years. Acting as the ultimate NASCAR playoff unknown, the Talladega round will make or break many playoff dreams of the remaining 2021 postseason field.
Keselowski won at Talladega in the spring and is one of the drivers on the bubble heading into this weekend. With only four points separating him from the elimination zone, he’ll have to rely on Team Penske teammates to help him. That is, if they’ll even want to, as both Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney aren’t safe either. Blaney has a whole 24-point cushion underneath him in the standings, but at Talladega, a playoff picture can change in a heartbeat.
In fact, the same can be said for any driver in the playoffs. Larson is 57 points above the cutline, but even for him, an early race incident can suddenly turn his playoff run into a nightmare as well.
So, forget it. Aside from Hamlin, nobody is safe.
How … do drivers in the NASCAR Playoffs prepare for the wild card race?
As mentioned, it’s likely many drivers will look to their teammates to assist them while navigating the draft going into next week. Ironically, the driver in the best position has teammates that are no longer in the playoffs. Someone like Harvick, who is the only one out of the four SHR cars still in the title hunt.
It’s also likely the three manufacturers will be looking to help one another get to the front, which will put the Toyota-powered team of JGR at a disadvantage, as they have the least amount of ships in their fleet.
Will it work? It all sounds great on paper, and we’ve seen the manufacturers come together successfully in recent years. But to quote boxing legend Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.”
At Talladega, those punches come early in the form of big wrecks that can change the complexion of the field. So who knows?
About the author
Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.
Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT
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